Look at pictures of any protest and you’ll see a mix of high and low technology. The Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong are no different. As the futurist Georgina Voss noticed, you’ll see umbrellas to deflect tear gas cans and saran wrap to protect from pepper spray. You’ll see bamboo threaded between metal barricades to strengthen them.
And you’ll hear about one thing more—a piece of software protesters are downloading to their phones. It’s helping them communicate digitally across the miles-long protest site, asking for supplies or reinforcements, and it stays useful even when the Internet is blocked or down. It’s called Firechat.
Firechat is a messaging app. It places users in chatrooms—both large and small, either across the Internet or locally—and allows them to talk with each other. Everything its users say inside it is public. And, crucially, it doesn’t need the Internet to work. It connects users directly to each other through their phone’s wi-fi or Bluetooth.
Firechat is, in the word of Stanislav Shalunov, “an electronic megaphone, that’s more resilient and goes further” than other tools. Shalunov is a co-founder and CTO of OpenGarden, the startup behind Firechat.
Firechat, in other words, erects a mesh network among its users. Unlike the modern Internet, which is essentially built around certain huge centralized hubs, mesh networking allows users to connect directly to each other. Even if “the Internet” is still blocked, a mesh network still works—there’s no main outgoing connection to block.
As my colleague Adrienne LaFrance wrote in June, many see mesh networking as a new, more promising kind of Internet. Mesh networks are more secure and resilient. They’re not as easy to dominate. As such, they seem ideal for disaster and protest situations.